A career in business journalism
by Chris Roush
Wendell Cochran, an American University journalism professor who is retiring, writes about his career in business journalism.
Cochran writes, “After graduate school, I took a fulltime job on the business desk of The Star in Kansas City. I’m pretty sure I was, in 1975, the first person the paper had ever hired directly to be a business reporter; in those days business journalism was considered a backwater. I had wanted to be a political or government reporter, but mostly I wanted and needed a job to support my wife and young son and the nation was in the grip of the worst post-war recession (until 2008-09). The business editor took me under his wing and sent me to classes in accounting and analyzing financial statements. He also got me interested and involved in covering banking and finance. One of my assignments was covering the wheat futures trading on the Kansas City Board of Trade. Traveling through the vast open spaces of western Kansas was a revelation to a boy from a landlocked mountain cove in West Virginia. In the summer of 1976, I helped cover the bicentennial, meeting an elderly farmer whose family had lived in a sod dugout in the 1800s.
“I’ve had datelines from nearly 40 states, but my favorite remains Pretty Prairie, Kan. It was a story about how neighbors helped an ill Kansas farmer harvest his wheat crop before a hailstorm could destroy it.
“I also did my first real investigative story at The Star, about a fraudulent insurance scheme. Investigative Reporters and Editors Inc. was formed while I was in Kansas City and Star reporter Harry Jones was part of the crew that went to Arizona to investigate the murder of Don Bolles. The Star was the first, but not the last, newspaper sale I endured, when it was sold in 1977 to Capital Cities. It’s now part of the McClatchy chain.
“I moved to the Des Moines Register in the summer of 1978 to be a business reporter. The Register was more than just a newspaper — it was a statewide institution. Nurtured by the amazing Cowles family, the Register circulated in all 99 counties and had considerable influence in state politics and policy. The Register had an outstanding staff of reporters and editors, many of whom were Iowa natives, including Michael Gartner, who had been front page editor of The Wall Street Journal before coming home to be editor of The Register.
“The big story in Des Moines, then and now, is the health of the state’s agriculture, which underpins much of the economy. For nearly the whole time I was in Iowa, farming was a business under stress and so were many of the businesses depending on it, including many banks. In the early 1980s, particularly after President Carter shut off grain exports to the Soviet Union in response to the invasion of Afghanistan, there was a wave of farm foreclosures and a rash of bank failures.”
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